Bombers’ defence dominates Ticats to improve to 3-0 (& 14 other thoughts)

Photo: David Mahussier/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers defeated the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by a score of 26-12 on Friday night in front of 23,600 fans at IG Field. Below are my thoughts on the game.

The ‘Dark Side’ returns

Winnipeg’s self-named ‘Dark Side’ defence had easily its best performance of the young CFL season, limiting the Ticats to 269 yards of offence. The club gave up only one big play — a 41-yard pass to David Ungerer III that was almost knocked down by Nick Taylor — which was a huge improvement from the first two weeks of the season against Ottawa.

The defence delivered a number of punishing blows, timing their hits perfectly on vulnerable Hamilton receivers. Big shots from Demerio Houston — more on him in a moment — and Adam Bighill set up both of Winnipeg’s fourth-quarter interceptions, which ultimately sealed the game.

“Good things happen when you run to the ball,” head coach Mike O’Shea told CJOB. “We did it well tonight and it paid off with guys getting takeaways.”

Zach Collaros had a great season in 2021 and was a deserving winner of the league’s Most Outstanding Player award, but Winnipeg’s defence was the biggest reason the club repeated as Grey Cup champions. The unit silenced its doubters on Friday, playing a dominant game against the Ticats.

Willie good performance

Willie Jefferson showed early signs of having a breakout performance when he made an inside move on Tyrone Riley to pressure Dane Evans on Hamilton’s opening possession. He remained disruptive throughout the game before finally getting home for his first sack of the season early in the fourth quarter, taking Evans down for a ten-yard loss.

Jefferson’s biggest play of the night came on the following drive when he intercepted a tipped pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. His stat line was impressive — three tackles, one sack, and a pick-six — but I wouldn’t say the six-foot-seven, 245-pound pass-rusher took over the game. Jefferson still has another gear he can hit as the season progresses.

Demski breaks out

Nic Demski’s catch near the end of the first half is one of the best grabs you’ll see all season. The pass from Zach Collaros was poorly placed, forcing Demski to switch shoulders and relocate the ball late in the route. He fought back to the pass and held on to make the catch despite tight coverage from two-time East Division all-star Tunde Adeleke.

The former first-round pick left the game early in the third quarter after his leg was pinned awkwardly during a tackle. He left for the locker room with the training staff and did not return, finishing the game with six catches for 96 yards in a little over a half of work.

Demski was quiet in two games against Ottawa but many of his contributions don’t make the stat sheet. He’s often asked to stay in and block and does so effectively in both run and pass situations. If he misses a significant amount of time, he’ll be sorely missed in Winnipeg’s offence.

Where are the runs?

Winnipeg’s rushing attack was ineffective against Hamilton with Brady Oliveira and Johnny Augustine combining for just 59 yards on 17 carries (3.5 yards per carry). I’d have to watch the film to provide a more in-depth analysis but on the surface, it doesn’t appear as though any individual or group is solely at fault.

The offensive line isn’t generating running lanes consistently enough. When the running lanes are there, the ball carriers aren’t hitting them hard enough. The play-calling could also improve by using misdirection to keep the defence more off-balance.

The lack of a running game hasn’t cost Winnipeg anything yet — the team is 3-0, after all — but they’ll need to find a way to get out of this rut eventually.

Houston, we don’t have a problem

Demerio Houston started at boundary cornerback in place of an injured Winston Rose, who struggled in back-to-back games against Ottawa. He was beaten for 17 yards on a slant to Steven Dunbar Jr. in the first quarter but settled in quickly, finishing the game with six tackles.

Houston started two games for Winnipeg at field-side halfback in 2021 but has generally been a depth player with the team. It’s a small sample size, of course, but he looked very comfortable at cornerback. There’s clearly no reason to rush Rose back from injury.

Centre of attention

Chris Kolankowski started at centre in place of an injured Michael Couture and performed well in his first start with the team. When Greg Ellingson made a 46-yard catch on Winnipeg’s first offensive play, I was watching Kolankowski pancake three-time CFL all-star defensive tackle, Micah Johnson. It was one of his many impressive blocks.

It’s hard not to cheer for Kolankowski. The 30-year-old attended York University — a school that hasn’t fielded a winning football team in 20 years — and wasn’t invited to the CFL’s National Combine back in 2016. He went unsigned for the entire 2019 CFL season after getting cut by the Toronto Argonauts and has spent most of his career on the practice roster.

A number of top centres around the league have sustained serious injuries over the past week, including Couture, Saskatchewan’s Dan Clark, and Montreal’s Sean Jamieson. Here’s hoping that trend comes to an end as soon as possible. Offensive linemen are hard to replace and the CFL needs its quarterbacks to be well-protected in order to ensure games remain entertaining.

BOO

Brendan O’Leary-Orange replaced Demski after he went down with an apparent leg injury and made his first career catch on a 19-yard pass from Zach Collaros. He finished the game with three receptions for 22 yards.

The Toronto native is the son of former CFL running back Doyle Orange and once caught 11 passes for 214 yards and three touchdowns in one game as a sophomore at the University of Nevada. He may have ended up in the NFL had injuries not derailed his junior and senior seasons with the Wolfpack and instead was a fourth-round pick in the 2020 CFL Draft.

It’s a shame that O’Leary-Orange’s opportunity came at Demski’s expense but I’ve been excited to watch him play in the CFL since he was in college. It’ll be interesting to see what he’s able to do if he starts next week.

Just for kicks

Marc Liegghio had an excellent night kicking the football, making all three of his field-goal attempts from distances of 45, 30 and 41 yards along with two converts.

Three of Liegghio’s punts ended up in the end zone for single points but he still finished with a respectable 36.8 net yards per attempt. His 69.3-yard average on kickoffs was well above the league average.

Fans in Winnipeg have lost their patience with poor kicking — which is fair — but they won’t have anything to complain about this week.

Where’s Simoni?

Simoni Lawrence lashed out on social media on Friday afternoon after former Ticats’ assistant coach Jeff Reinebold criticized him on The Rod Pedersen Show for a lack of big plays. I was expecting a motivated Lawrence to make at least one big play on Friday night but he didn’t stand out at all for the Ticats, making just three tackles.

Welcome to the CFL

Former first-round pick Liam Dobson made his regular-season CFL debut on Friday and was in at tight end when he got beaten for a sack by Julian Howsare. Dobson is going to be a good offensive lineman in this league but he’ll obviously need to improve his understanding of pass-rushing angles in the Canadian game.

Out of the Woods

Rookie returner Lawrence Woods looks like a really nice find for Hamilton. He’s yet to bring one back for a touchdown this season but he’s come close to doing so a number of times. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t happen soon.

Heavy weather

I published a Twitter thread before the game outlining the CFL’s weather policy as kickoff was delayed by 30 minutes due to thunderstorms in the area. After Winnipeg played host to the longest regular-season game in CFL history just four years ago, I cannot begin to describe how pleased I was for Friday’s game to proceed without any additional weather delays.

Abbreviated break

Halftime was shortened by five minutes due to the weather delay and I can’t help but wonder if this is a change the CFL should consider making permanently.

It’s not the 1960s anymore — players and coaches don’t need a mid-game smoke break and film of the first half can instantaneously be viewed on a tablet or smartphone. Halftime doesn’t need to be as long as it once was.

Entertainment today is all about keeping audiences engaged with shorter, harder-hitting content. Shortening halftime might be a way for the CFL to do that.

Fashion police

Winnipeg wore white jerseys on Friday and encouraged fans to dress accordingly in what the club called “the spirit of a whiteout.” Considering how bad the Jets were this season, it seemed appropriate that local sports fans got the chance to have at least one whiteout this spring/summer.

The club typically pairs their white jerseys with gold pants but forwent that combination against Hamilton to sport the blue pants from their new alternate uniforms. If you ask me, this should become a permanent change — when you have the word “blue” in your name, it doesn’t make sense to sport primarily white and gold on the road.

According to press box announcer Tom Hallick, this was the first time Winnipeg wore white at home since August 29, 1989.

Next up

The Blue Bombers (3-0) are set to visit the Toronto Argonauts (1-0) for an awkwardly-scheduled matchup on Monday, July 4.

The obvious storyline is Andrew Harris playing against his former team for the first time since departing Winnipeg as a free agent this past off-season. Toronto does not play at IG Field this year, so this is the only time Harris will play against his hometown team during the regular season.

The game is also relevant because Winnipeg lost only one meaningful game in 2021, which was a 30-23 loss at BMO Field when Nick Arbuckle was under centre for Toronto in mid-August.